drums of the yoruba of nigeria


drums of the yoruba of nigeria
© 1953 by Folkways Records & Service Corp., 43 W. 61st St., NYC, USA 10023
The social organization is based upon the patrilineal
clan or lineage. The lineage occupies a large rectangu~ar dw.elling which may house as many as 500 people,
mcludmg the male relatives, their wives, and their
unmarried daughters. The ideal for all men except
Christian converts is to have several wives. The husband pays bridewealth to his wife's family as a part
of the marriage, and may acquire as wives the widows
of his male relatives, for whom he becomes economically responsible. The first wife has special privileges and authority, directing the activities of her
Introduction and Notes on the Recordings by
William Bascom
The Yoruba, one of the most important peoples of
the West African Guinea Coast, inhabit southwestern
Nigeria and portions of eastern Dahomey. They number
over 3,500,000 and occupy an area which is predominantly forest near the coast and savannah farther inland toward the Niger River, and which is larger than
the state of Maine. The Yoruba are composed of a
number of cultural and linguistic sub-groups such as
the Oyo, !fe, Jesha, Jebu, Ondo and Egba, and of a
number of independent kingdoms of which Oyo, ruled
by the Alafin, was the largest and most powerful. The
drumming reproduced here was recorded in 1951 at
the capitol of this kingdom, known also as Oyo, a city
of about 50,000.
Yoruba religion, like that of the neighboring Dahomeans and Ewe to the West, represents a high point in
African polytheistic belief. A high god (Olorun or
Olodumare) is recognized, but there are no sacrifices, dances, songs, or other aspects of worship
associated with him, except for brief prayers. In
contrast, there are elaborate rituals and organized
cults associated with the several hundred deities
(orisha) created by Olorun.
In its general outlines, Yoruba religion is compar-
One of the distinctive features of the Yoruba is their
urban character. Almost a third of their population
live in ten cities larger than 45,000. One of these,
Ibadan, is the largest city in all of Negro Africa, with
an estimated population of half a million. Yoruba pOlitical structure incorporates both city gcvernment, in
terms of a chief and his council representing the "wards"
. t"
an d " precmc
s , an d state government, with a king
and his administrators for the various districts and
towns within the boundaries of the kingdom. The capitol cities are ruled by the king and two councils, one
representing the townspeople and one representing the
royal family and palace officials. Yoruba kings have
the right to wear beaded crowns and to use other state
paraphernalia, and they were honored by specialforms
of deferential behavior. The kings and their wives and
palace retinue were supported by a system of taxes
and tribute, which today has been replaced by regular
salaries under the British.
able to that of ancient Greece and Rome. An extensive
mythology about the deities tells of their family relationships, friendships, love affairs, rivalries, enmities, and their eventual fate. Many of the deities
turned into rivers or hills or rocks after having lived
on earth, but others have no comparable counterparts
in nature. Each deity has its special praise names as
well as proper name, its special sacrifices and taboos
its insignia such as cloths or beads worn by its wor- '
shipp~rs, and its special ritual paraphernalia, many
of WhICh are also accounted for in the mythology.
Each deity also has its special songs and its appropI"iate drums and distinctive drum rhythms, some of
which are illustrated here.
of Yoruba music, and perhaps the most exciting,
IS associated with religion, but Christianity and Islam
have made serious inroads into the traditional reli~ous music. Yoruba secular music has been strongly
mfluenced by Islam, while another modern influence
on secular music is that known by the Yoruba as "Spanish music", which is in large part Afro-Cuban and
Afro-Brazilian. Drums are the principal musical instrument, but trumpets, whistles, violins, several
types of gongs, and a variety of gourd or calabash
rattles are used, as well as hand clapping. Of some
ten distinct types of drums used by the Yoruba, this
recording illustrates three important sets, known as
igbin, dundun, and batao
The large cities are supported by farming, trading,
and handicraft. The economy is based on hoe agriculture, with maize and yams as the staple foods, and
cocoa as the principal cash crop. The Yoruba in the
forest zone produce the cocoa which makes Nigeria the
world's third largest cocoa producer. Belts of farms
thirty or more miles in diameter surround the cities.
Women traders, who deal in local farm produce, imported goods, and handicrafts, dominate the huge markets, the most picturesque of which are held after
dark and lit by the flickering flames of hundreds of
small oil lamps. The profits from trading are a woman's
private property over which her husband has no control
and some wives are far wealthier than their husbands. '
Large numbers of Yoruba were carried to the New
World during the slave trade. Their cultural contributions have been greatest in Brazil and Cuba, where
Yoruba religious cults still flourish. All of the deities
whose rhythms are recorded here, as well as many
others, are worshipped today in Cuba and Brazil, while
Shango is known in Trinidad, Haiti, and elsewhere.
Yoruba songs and drumming have been retained in the
New World, along with many other elements of the
cult ritual. Similarities to jazz and to rhumba may be
noted here.
Yoruba craftsmen include blacks.miths, brass casters,
potters, dyers and weavers, leather and bead workers, woodcarvers, calabash carvers, and ivory carvers.
Igbin are upright open-ended log drums with single
leather heads fastened and tuned by wooden pegs. They
are known also as agba and apesi. The Yoruba have
several other drums of this type, known by different
names, used for different deities, and with somewhat
different shapes and proportions. The igbin drums are
generally thick and squat, and stand on three legs
roughly carved out of the bottom of the drum. They are
sometimes roughly hewn, and sometimes carefully
carved with decorative figures and designs in bas-relief on the sides; sometimes the entire shape of the
drum is adapted to that of the human figure. Three
drums of different size played by three drummers make
a set. The largest is called iya igbin, the second jagba,
and the smallest epele. The two smaller drums are
played with two unfashioned sticks, while the larger
may be played with a single stick and the palm, fist, or
fingers of the left hand. By varying the fingering and
the use of the left hand, a variety of effects may be
. Igbin drum set.
Igbin drums are sacred to the deity Orishanla (lithe
great deity") who is also known as Obatala (liking of
the white cloth"), and who may be described as the
deity of whiteness. His worshippers are distinguished
by the use of opaque white beads and white cloths, and
many of the things associated with his ritual are white.
He is believed to fashion children within the mother's
womb by opening the eyes, mouth, nose and ears, and
by separating the arms, legs, toes and fingers much
as a woodcarver does when making a figurine. He is
also credited with fashioning the first humans, male
and female, in a similar fashion. Albinos, hunchbacks,
cripp!es, and children with six toes or six fingers are
sacre<! to Orishanla and worship him.
Gudugudu drums, showing top and bottom, and
the attached twisted leather thongs with which
they are beaten.
This entire side was recorded during the annual festival of Orishanla in his principal temple at the house
of Chief Ashipa of Oyo. During the. r·~cording of Band 1,
several drumsticks were broken, and better drummers
continued to replace those who had originally been
playing. Igbin drums are played by cult members rather than by professional drummers, and are used only
for religious music. The two smaller drums keep up
a driving, interlocking, and almost inseperable rhythm.
Against this background the deep tone of the large drum
establishes intermittent rhythmic phrases which are
dropped almost as soon as they become clearly established in the listener's mind, leaving him suspended
in the middle of the phrase. The intricate interrelationships of the two smaller drums require extreme precision and accuracy, but the timing, subtle variations
and choice of the simpler phrases of the large drum
are regarded as involving greater artistry.
Bata drum set.
SIDE II, Band 1, illustrates this kind of praise, beaten
out on a pressure drum in the drum language, and then
translated into the Yoruba language by another drummer.
It includes greetings for the different times of day such
as "Good afternoon" (Ekasan) and "White man, did you
wake well?" (Oyinbo, 0 ji re bi?), the praise names of
important local personages, and other greetings and
forms of praise.
SIDE II, Band 2, illustrates the parts played by the
drums in a five drum set. First there is the largest
drum, the dundun itself, which serves here as the ~
ilu ("mother of the drums"). Second is the smallest of
the pressure drums, known as kanango. Third is the
gang an drum, the second smallest. Fourth there is the
kerikeri, the second largest, which the Yoruba say is
added to make the music "sweeter". The fifth drum in
the set is the gudugudu, which is not a pressure drum,
but of a completely different shape. It is a shallow hemispherical drum with a single fixed head, which is worn
on the chest with a strap around the neck and beaten
with leather straps held in each hand. The four pre!';sure drums, which are played only on one head, are
worn under the left arm with a strap over the shoulder,
with the left elbow applying the pressure and the left
hand fingering the drum head. The forward head is
beaten with the right hand, using a special wooden drum
stick which curves through ninety degrees and ends in
a button -head. A set of drums must include at least
two pressure drums serving as iya ilu and omele
(either dundun and gangan, dundun and kanango, dundun and kerikeri, or gangan 'and kanango) and a ~-
SIDE II, Bands 1, 2, 3. DUNDUN DRUMS.
Dundun, or gangan as they are also known, are the
type of px;-essure drum used widely in West Africa,
and probably the most important Yoruba drum today.
They are played by professional drummers and used
both for secular and for religious music. It is the proper drum for some deities, and can be used for many
others which have special drums of their own. Four of
the drums in the five drum set have hour-glass -shaped
wooden bodies carved by woodcarvers, with a leather
head at each end. Small brass bells cast by the lost WID..
process may be attached to the drum. The two heads
are fastened together by leather thongs laced back and
forth between them. By applying pressure on these
connecting thongs with the elbow, the tension on the
heads can be increased, and thus the tone or pitch can
be raised. It is possible to playa melody on a single
drum by varying the pressure, within a range of almost
an octave. The West African pressure drum is be, lieved to be the only drum designed for instantaneous
tuning, which makes it especially suited for the West
African drum language.
SIDE II, Band 3, is a song for social dancing played by
pressure drums, with voice and with shekere rattles.
The shekere is a large calabash, up to two feet in
diameter, which is covered with a string net to which
cowry shells are fastened. It is a versatile and spectacular instrument. When shaken, it serves as a rattle; it
can also be beaten like a drum, and thrown into the
air and caught in exact rhythm. Here it serves only as
a rattle. The song itself illustrates the Moslem influence on Yoruba secular music.
African languages, like Chinese, are tonal. Tone or
pitch is used to distinguish words wh~ch in other respects are phonetically identical. Each sentence, and
each word, has a "melody" which can be whistled,
blown on a trumpet, or played on drums which produce
the requisite number of tones. The talking drums of
West Africa are not comparable to telegraphy since
they are not based upon a code. Messages are not
spelled out, using symbols for letters. Instead, there
is a true drum language and the drums actually "talk",
reproducing the melody and the rhythm of the sentence,
and approximating the quality of consonants and vowels
by fingering the head with ' the left hand.
A variety of talking drums are used in West Africa. A
set of three drums of different tones (such as the igbin)
can be used for a three-toned language. It is possible
also to vary the tone of a single drum by applying
pressure to the edge of the drum with one hand. But
the pressure drum, with its variable pitch, is especially adapted to drum language, and since it is carried by
a strap which fits over the shoulder, it is mobile. A
single drummer can walk about town drumming out
greetings to the people he meets. Groups of professional pressure drummers among the Yoruba spend a great
deal of time doing just this, drumming out the praises
and praise names of important people in town in return
for which they receive "dashes" or tips.
SIDE II, Bands 4,5,6,7,8,9. BATA DRUMS.
Bata are a special type of two-toned drums, believed
to be found only among the Yoruba, and used only for
religious music. The bata drum has a wooden body in
the shape of a truncated cone, giving two heads of
different size and tone. The heads are fastened together with leather strips which are wrapped tightly
against the body of the drum with other leather strips,
tuning them tightly and giving a fixed tone which has a
metallic, bell-like quality. Small cast brass bells may
also be attached to batao Three drums make up the set
recorded here. The largest drum, known as iya ilu
("mother of the drums"), and the medium sized drum,
known as orne Ie , are held horizontally in front of the
drummer, who beats the smaller head with a leather
thong and the larger head with his hand. The smallest
drum, known as kudi, is held with the larger head up
and is beaten with two leather thongs. Thus there are
a total of five tones for a set of three drums. More
drums can be added, in which case those of the same
type are distinguished as fern ale and male (e. g. orne Ie
abo and omele ako) depending upon their size, and the
gudugudu described above may be added. Bata drums
are still played in Cuba, where recordings of bata
drumming were made in 1948.
Set of six bata drummers playing for Shango.
Bata drums are played only by professional drummers
and are considered one of the most difficult types to
learn. A notable rhythmic feature of these recordings
is the use of contrasting tempos, by the deliberate
speeding up, and slowing down, of the tempo. Marked
phases of acceleration and deceleration are used alternatingly in Bands 6,7, and 9, while Band 8 maintains
a fast tempo, while building in intenSity. In jazz acceleration is used to build to a climax, but here the
opposite is also used for effect, and Bands 7 and 9 end
in a slow drag.
Bata drums are regarded as sacred to the deity Shango,
and to his wife, Oya; but other drums may be used for
these deities, and bata may be played for some other
deities. The bata recordings here illustrate the different rhythms appropriate for the deities Shango, Oya,
Egungun, Shapana (all four of whom are related to
one another in Yoruba mythology), Orishanla, and
Bata drummers with iya Uu, omele, kudi.
SIDE II, Band 4: Shango is the Yoruba thunder gOd,
who controls lightning. It is believed that he throws
thunderbolts (neolithic celts, known as edun ara) from
the sky when he causes lightning to strike, and can
kill people who steal or who make bad magic, or set
their houses on fire. He is said to have been one of
the early Kings of Oyo who had many magical powers
and breathed fire from his mouth when he spoke; after
he committed suicide by hanging himself, he went to
live in a brass palace in the sky. His worshippers are
distinguished by strings of alternate red and white
beads. Those who can be possessed by Shango when
he returns to earth and enters into their bodies wear
Pressure drummers of the King of Oyo, in the palace.
Gangan, dundun, gudugudu.
colorful costumes including cotton shirts and trousers
dyed red with camwood and decorated with cowry
shells, and panels of appliqued cloth and leather tied
around the waist so that they spin out when dancing.
Under possession, his worshippers carry pots of fire
on their heads, and may even eat burning balls of
cotton soaked in palm oil.
SIDE II, Band 5: ~ is the principal wife of Shango.
Although Shango had many wives, ~ stayed with him
after he had been deserted by all the others. She is
identified both as the Niger River and as the very
heavy wind which precedes a thunderstorm. When
Shango goes out to "fight" humans who have offended
him, Oya precedes him, blowing down houses and
trees. Thunderstones are kept in her shrines, as in
the shrines of Shango, and under possession her worshippers can also eat burning oil-soaked cotton balls.
Her worshippers are distinguished by strings of long,
cylindrical maroon beads.
SIDE II, Band 8: Orishanla is the deity of whiteness,
discussed above. Although the igbin drums are sacred to Orishanla and are used for rituals within the
temple, they are stationary and cannot be used to accompany dancing through the town. For this purpose
bata or dundun drums are used.
S IDE II, Band 9: Eshu (also known as Elegba or
Elegbara) is the messenger of the other gods, and
the trickster deity. If a person is killed by a falliY).g
wall or tree, shot accidtmtally by a hunter, or 'dlled
in an automobile accident, it is the work of Eshu,
who may have been sent by another deity to punish a
worshipper who has displeased him. Eshu is the owner of cowry shells and of the crossroads, where he
makes his home. His worshippers wear small maroon
colored beads. Any drum may be used for Eshu, but
bata are most important.
SIDE II, Band 6: Egungun is the younger brother of
Shango. A variety of costumes are used in connection
with his worship: some with carved wooden masks
worn on top of the head, some with long panels of appliqued cloth and leather similar to those used for
Shango, and others of different types. All these costumes completely cover the body, head, hands and
feet, and the male worshippers who wear them change
their voices so that they cannot be recognized. Although any man may know the identity of the person
inside the costume, revealing this secret to any woman
is strictly prohibited and was formerly punished by a
heavy fine or even death. Egungun worshippers have
no beads or similar insignia by which they are identified. Bata or dundun drums are usually played for
SIDE II, Band 7: Shapana is the Yoruba god of small
pox, and the elder brother of Shango. One of his
common praise names is Obaluaiye ("King of the
world"), and in Cuba he is known by a variant of this,
Babaluaiye ("father of the world"). The well-known
Afro-Cuban song, Babalu or Babaluaiye, is based
upon the worship of Shapana in Cuba, where he in
identified with Saint Lazarus; it is not, however, re1ated musically with the cult music, as can be seen
with the drum rhythm recorded here. Shapana or
Obaluaiye appears in the form of a whirlwind, especially during the dry season when small pox epidemics are likely to occur. He is fond of drums of all
kinds, not only bata which are commonly used for him,
and drumming issometimes banned during outbreaks
of small pox so that he will not be attracted into the
town. His priests are responsible for precautions to
prevent small pox, and for the care of those who become ill. Because of allegations that they actually
spread the disease, the cult has been legally banned
in Nigeria for many years. His worshippers were
distinguished by strings of black beads.
Restringing small pressure drum ( kanango ). Note
the hour -glass -shape of the wooden body and the
leather thongs which will fasten the two heads of
the drum together.
Photographs by William Bascom
Edited by Harold Courlander
Production Director, Moses Asch
Individual photographs of the six bata drummers
For Add it ion a I I n f 6 rm a t ion Abo u t
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and Service C o r p . t t
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